How the Cuban Diaspora Finds Its Place in Miami Through Food and Culture

If you want to explore Cuban culture in the U.S., there’s no better place than Miami—nearly half of all Cuban Americans call it home. So when Padma Lakshmi went there to film an episode of her critically acclaimed TV show show Taste the Nation, we knew we had to tag along.

A mural in Little Havana
Photo: Passion Ward

With so many cultural influences from around the globe, America just might be the most exciting, delicious place to eat. Our series, American Food Today, guest-edited by award-winning cookbook author and TV host Padma Lakshmi celebrates the rich diversity of American food.

Not long ago, Padma Lakshmi found herself sitting between two Cuban tíos with drastically different life experiences— and viewpoints—at Monica León's dining room table in Miami. This, she learned, was not uncommon. The city's largest, most-visible immigrant community is often painted with a broad brush: conservative, Republican, hard-line. The truth is that even within families, perspectives can be very different.

Lakshmi's Hulu show, Taste the Nation, uses food as the catalyst to reveal the nuanced views within Indigenous and immigrant communities. She was curious to explore Cuban food, yes, but more importantly, Cuban culture in South Florida. So León, a Cuban American chef who owns Caja Caliente in Coral Gables, invited Lakshmi to dinner with her extended family.

At one end of the table was Leon's Tío Jorge, a staunch conservative who arrived wearing a MAGA cap. A matador waving a red hat. "What? I thought it would make a good conversation-starter," he told León.

At the other end, Tío Cha Chá sat quietly. It took Lakshmi a long time to get him to open up, through a translator, and explain how the Cuban government had intimidated him into leaving his successful tailoring business because he was gay. He boarded a stranger's boat in 1980 and was dropped off alone in Key West, a victim of Cuba's totalitarian quest to stamp out individuality, including those who identify as LGBTQ.

And between them, a whole roasted pig. It had been cooked in a contraption known in Miami as the "caja china," a wooden box on wheels where coal fires the meat indirectly from above. The fall-apart roasted pork and accompanying tender boiled yuca were bathed in the same garlicky sour-orange mojo and served with heaping helpings of black-and-white congri (beans and rice).

A cuban restaurant in Little Havana
Passion Ward

The family disagreed on everything from U.S. immigration policy to taxes. But they spoke openly in a way they knew they never could in Cuba. Decades-old stories came pouring out. One uncle recalled celebrating "silent Christmases," keeping their religious Nochebuena meal a secret in the aggressively secular state. An aunt sobbed through the tale of rafting to America with her two toddlers. Yet that night, amid gregarious laughter and tears, those different Cuban narratives lived side by side.

"The hat was a gift from God because it allowed us to have complex conversations," Lakshmi said later. "Cubans want to assert they are not dependent on the state because it took so much of the things they built. But around the table, they exchanged those stories with tears in their eyes."

Nearly half a million Cubans fled the island between New Year's Day 1959— when the late dictator Fidel Castro grabbed power—and the end of 1973. During that time, the U.S. ran twice-daily humanitarian Freedom Flights from Varadero to Miami. Cubans who were denied exit visas, desperate to spare their children from communism, sent more than 14,000 unaccompanied minors to the U.S. as part of Operation Peter Pan. Within a generation, Cubans remade the city of Miami, establishing themselves in everything from small businesses to local government and sprouting a branch of Cuba's evolutionary tree separate from the island.

But Cubans continued coming in waves separated by generations—125,000 in 1980 alone and tens of thousands more during the 1990s and early 2000s after the Soviet Union, Cuba's longtime sponsor, fell. Each group brought their own food traditions and world views.

An image of Domino Park
Passion Ward

After that boisterous dinner, Lakshmi went to visit Ana Sofía Peláez, author of The Cuban Table. In her suburban Miami kitchen, they browned beef, scarce in Cuba for anyone but tourists these days, to make picadillo, a dish simmered with garlic and onion, spiced with cumin and oregano, tangy with green olives and capers, sweet with plump raisins. Lakshmi learned that because of Castro-era food shortages in Cuba, many traditional dishes only exist in Miami in their truest form, a pre-revolution menu frozen in time. "In Miami, you have so much abundance and variety that you don't find in Cuba right now," Peláez said as they stuffed picadillo into tostones (fried green plantains) that they'd cooked into shell shapes.

The co-founder of the Miami Freedom project, which advocates for progressive policies within the area's diverse communities, Peláez admitted the Cuban American dinner table had become a more treacherous place over the last four years. The party affiliations that split America also caused tension within Cuban families here. An older generation of mostly Republican voters still takes a hard line against rapprochement with Cuba. And younger Cuban Americans, more of whom are voting Democrat, want to see more progressive policies. But there is still one issue that brings them together: "Libertad for Cuba!"

Recent protests on the island sparked demonstrations in Miami that unified Cubans and Cuban Americans regardless of political leanings. And that's the messy, complex story that Lakshmi found sitting around Miami's Cuban table."I found a community that is passionate, that is diverse," Lakshmi said, "and they're excited to tell their stories with so many colors."

For the recipes that go with this story, pick up a copy of the October 2021 issue of EatingWell Magazine.

Carlos Frías is the James Beard Award-winning food editor of the Miami Herald. He's also the author of Take Me with You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.

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